CHESTERTOWN, MD—Peter Manseau, a historian, novelist, journalist and memoirist whose writing spans a remarkable range of genres, has been awarded the 2011-12 Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship at Washington College. He will spend the academic year finishing a major new narrative history of the United States, told through the prism of the diverse religious traditions that have shaped the nation.
The fellowship, provided by the College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, offers a yearlong residency to authors doing innovative work on America's founding era and its legacy. Manseau’s fellowship book, Twenty Gods or None: The Making of a Nation from the Margins of Faith, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013.
Manseau’s sweeping portrayal of American religious diversity focuses on “minority religions,” ranging from the “secret Jews” who sailed with Columbus, to Muslim traditions among African Americans, to the Buddhism that Chinese railroad workers brought to the American West in the 19th century. Situating these faiths at the center, rather than the margins of American history, Manseau argues that minority faiths had (and still have) a disproportionate influence on debates over religious freedom and the role of faith in American public life.
As part of the fellowship, Manseau will live in a restored 1735 house in the heart of Chestertown’s colonial historic district and will teach a course at Washington College in the spring. He will give a public talk about his work on Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 5 p.m. in the College’s Litrenta Lecture Hall, Toll Science Center.
“As both a historian and a novelist, I am excited to join a community that regards the writing of history at once as a literary pursuit and a key to understanding the present through the past,” Manseau says. “In keeping with the Starr Center’s mission, the book will show how the early history of the nation continues to shape the story we are all a part of today.”
Twenty Gods or None takes its title from one of Thomas Jefferson’s most robust defenses of religious liberty. The book will be the first history of the United States to explain the formation of American culture as a product of radical religious diversity, rooted in the founders’ commitment to protecting the free exercise of religion without favoring any individual faith or sect.
“Peter Manseau’s impressively diverse and prolific career sets him apart,” says Adam Goodheart, the Starr Center’s Hodson Trust-Griswold Director. “He’s a young scholar whose versatile mind and free-ranging curiosity, whose dedication to both intellectual inquiry and literary craft, put him in the proud tradition of such writers as Henry Adams and Alfred Kazin.”
A 1996 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Manseau has published three books of his own, co-authored a fourth, and co-edited a fifth. His works focus on the history of religion and include the reliquary travelogue Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead (Henry Holt, 2009), which the St. Petersburg Times called an “eloquently crafted tribute to the ways in which life and death connect.”
Manseau’s widely-acclaimed memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2005) resonated with readers both inside and outside of the Catholic church and won him that most coveted of book-related interviews, a spot on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A founding editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha, Manseau is also the co-author (with Jeff Sharlet) of a companion book, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2004), which was named one of the best religion books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly.
His first novel, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2005), was internationally acclaimed as a “picaresque novel with an epic sweep” and was translated into Dutch, German, Hebrew, Italian, French and Spanish. The story of a fictional Yiddish poet in turn-of-the-century Russia, the book won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award and the American Library Association's Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature, among other honors.
Manseau is completing a Ph.D. in Religion at Georgetown University, where his dissertation examines American Yiddish literature from the early 1900s. His essays and articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Vanity Fair, and many other publications.
The Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship’s funding is permanently endowed as part of a $2.5 million challenge grant package that the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded through its nationwide “We the People” initiative for strengthening the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture.
Launched by the Starr Center in 2008, the Patrick Henry Fellowship aims to encourage reflection on the links between American history and contemporary culture, and to foster the literary art of historical writing. It is co-sponsored by the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Washington College's center for literature and the literary arts. The Henry Fellowship complements the George Washington Book Prize, which is also administered by the Starr Center and awarded annually to an author whose work advances public understanding of the Revolution and its legacy.
Washington College acquired the Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence in January 2007 through a generous gift from the Barksdale-Dabney-Patrick Henry Family Foundation, which was established by the Nuttle family of Talbot County, direct descendants of the patriot Patrick Henry.
Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in colonial Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Based in the Custom House along the colonial waterfront, the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience fosters the art of written history and explores our nation’s past—particularly the legacy of its Founding era—in innovative ways, through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach. For more information on the Center and the Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.